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A TOAST TO THOSE WHO
FOUGHT THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE
by Eli J. Warach
For me and countless tens of thousands of other, this New Year's Day is an especially pensive and poignant one. Many of us who served in the European Theater in World War II recognized that 1945 would be a watershed year. Few of us, however, knew at the time just how great yet horrible, how gallant yet costly, January 1, 1945, would be. For us it turned out to be a crucial--a make-or-break--day in the Battle of the Bulge.
Our unit, the 42nd Tank Battalion of the 11th Armored Division, part of Patton's Third Army, was in Belgium and was about to start the drive to clear the road to Bastogne. The cold, the snow, the atmosphere all contributed to an eerie foreboding on New Year's Eve. Suffice to say, none of us were exactly in a festive mood. I recall breaking out a bottle of Scotch that I had stashed away in the tank. We each had one drink and for a number of tankers, that was the last drink they ever had.
To this day, few of our survivors have big celebrations on New Year's Even. Our thoughts occupy us, namely the bloody reality of New Year's Day. The acts of bravery and gallantry performed that day may not be recorded in history books or records--but they live with me forever. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that the impact of those days will affect me and my tank company for as long as we live-of in far too many cases, as long as they lived. Let it also be noted that we did take our objective.
Company D was a light tank unit. Simply put, our tanks were comparatively light, with minimal armor shielding and our largest weapon was a 37mm gun. In today's armies, armored cars carry bigger and more effective weapons. Often, when 1 think about that gigantic tank battle on New Year's Day 51 years ago, I think of Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade. How fitting. Despite the best Laid plans, war never runs according to expectation.
Early morning, January 1, 1945, 1 was given orders to lead the attack with my platoon of light tanks, with two other light-tank platoons following. When I asked what our intelligence reported ahead of us, I was told: "Just enemy infantry with machine guns." Well, that was true as we began rolling down a slope toward a tree line. There indeed was infantry. We disposed of that obstacle and then came through a tree line.
Then the sight that I'll never forget. As far as the eye could me to the right of us, to the left of us, and in depth in front of us were enemy tanks-big enemy tanks. Later we were told they were Tiger tanks-but no difference, Tiger, Panther or any other variety, many of them carried the infamous 88-the scourge of even big tanks.
It was so bad that I knew, absolutely knew, we were dead As our light tanks were methodically being knocked out and burning, my tank lost half a track to an 88 shell, but managed, slipping and sliding on snow and ice, to knock out a Tiger tank putting our last round into the engine compartment at the rear of the enemy tank, setting it on fire.
Meanwhile, the next platoons were rolling forward only to be mowed down in flaming pyres. We managed to pick up two badly wounded men, as they were struggling to get away from intense enemy fire. One, Murray Kaye (of Paramus), who died a few years back, was carrying his tank commander over his shoulder-through the hail of bullets. Kaye's legs were shattered at the time.
For years, I thought they both were deed-and they thought that I was deed. No one believed that that inferno could be avoided.
I remember that after we got the wounded to the aid station, our crew looked at the track-almost torn in half-and unanimously decided to go back into the battle even though our colonel told us to stay put. There was a feeling of: What the hell, we're going to die anyway. And so we went back to fight.
I'11 never forget that tank crew, my gunner, Joe Crooks; the driver, Refugio Hinoyas, whom I can't locate; and Bill "Tex" Phelps, a lanky newcomer. He went on to remain in the service, served in Korea and Vietnam, and retired as a colonel. Yes, we lived through that. I don't know how.
New Year's Day 1945 lives with all of us who survived that battle. Sure we went on to re-form and fight our way into the heart of Germany and wound up in Austria-where we liberated the Mauthausen death camp.
I recall how when we first went into combat, I knew that I would survive the war. During the Battle of the Bulge, I knew just as assuredly that it was impossible to survive. The odds were so badly stacked against it.
Finally, I recall the Charge of the Light Brigade. Our light tanks were not supposed to lead that attack. The orders somehow got twisted and misinterpreted.
So today, I'll drink a toast to honor the warriors who fell and to those who are still with us. There never were more magnificent fighting troops. And perhaps I'll have a second drink to those P47 pilots who came out when the skies cleared and blasted those big enemy tanks.
And yes, we did clear the road to Bastogne.